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Checkmate: An Advance Review of PBS' "Endgame" on "Masterpiece Contemporary"

Apartheid is an ugly word, conjuring up images of racial segregation and hatred from a time in the not-too-distant past of South Africa.

PBS' new political thriller Endgame, which airs Sunday evening as part of the public broadcaster's Masterpiece Contemporary wheel, dramatizes not the plight of the common South African man and woman under the draconian decree of apartheid but rather the machinery operating behind the scenes to bring an end to apartheid once and for all.

Written by Paula Milne (Second Sight) and directed by Pete Travis (Vantage Point), Endgame revolves around a series of secret talks between the ANC and the South African government brokered by Consolidated Goldfields, a multi-national company with vested financial interests in South Africa. The talks took place at an estate in England, far away from the violent rebellion in South Africa, and despite the risk in bringing together these enemies, the open lines of communication actually did bring about stunning social and political change in South Africa.

The piece, which plays out as a political thriller rather than as a history lesson, boasts some highly impressive actors, including Clarke Peters (The Wire), William Hurt (Damages), Chiwetel Ejiofor (American Gangster), Jonny Lee Miller (Eli Stone), Mark Strong (Body of Lies), and Derek Jacobi (Gosford Park). (You can view my video interview with Ejiofor, who plays the African National Congress' Thabo Mbeki, here.)

While all of the actors deliver stunning performances (particularly Ejiofor), of particular note is Clarke Peters, who plays imprisoned leader Nelson Mandela, a global symbol of oppression and apartheid. Peters' performance is so subtle and assured that it's impossible not to be drawn into Mandela's story. His gilded cage imprisonment is a stark reminder of the games employed by the security forces (look for some Machiavellian maneuvers by Mark Strong's Neil Barnard, the South African security czar) and of the underestimation the South African government made on their gambit that they could contain the riots, violence, and Mandela himself.

However, the focus of Endgame isn't on Mandela but the aforementioned secret talks occurring on a British estate over five years' time, leading to a sensation that the piece is somewhat off-balance as a result. Mandela's story is so compelling, so remarkably courageous and stirring, that it seems almost shoehorned in as a subplot rather than as the main emphasis of the piece. Part of that is due to the magnetism of Peters but also because Mandela's story is so well-known and moving.

In trying to dramatize both the talks at Mells Park and Mandela's situation, Milne and Travis end up leading the audience in two directions at once. It's also not all that clear just how these talks lead to the abolition of apartheid in South Africa; there's a sea change so quickly that the film feels almost truncated as a result, with the talks plot wrapped up extremely quickly and unceremoniously. It's a bit as if part of Remains of the Day was grafted onto a Mandela biopic and an action-packed political thriller, with car chases, explosions, and espionage.

Which is somewhat disheartening as the performances at the heart of Endgame are so utterly fantastic. Ultimately, Endgame, despite its best intentions, doesn't quite add up to the sum of its parts. Still, it offers a glimpse behind the curtain to the power brokers, politicians, and revolutionaries who brought an end to one of the century's most evil political practices and brings to life one singular moment in time where words overcame violence.

Endgame airs Sunday evening at 9 pm as part of PBS' Masterpiece Contemporary. Check your local listings for details.


Jane Grey said…
Wow. The cast for this is incredible. But I can see how it would be difficult to make an interesting film about people talking in a room (even if the subject matter is fascinating). I will tune in anyway as I'm sure the performances are worth it. I'm particularly excited to see Clarke Peters as Mandela. I loved him in The Wire and can see how he'd be perfect for the role!

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